There is no particular law that expressly prohibits the Law Society to publish its views regarding the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, says Director of civil rights group Function 8 Teo Soh Lung.
While section 38(c) of the Legal Profession Act may serve as the basis for the Law Society’s preference to engage in “confidential consultation” with the government regarding the Bill instead of issuing a public statement on the impending legislation, Teo posits that the particular subsection “does not forbid the Law Society from expressing its views in public”.
“There were rare instances when the society spoke up in public when statements were issued after members called for extraordinary general meetings to oppose a bill such as the amendment to the Penal Code in 1984, or a senior member or president like the late Mr CC Tan, Mr David Marshall and Mr JB Jeyaretnam spoke up in public,” she wrote.
“On the whole”, she added, however, “unlike the Malaysian Bar Council, the Law Society minded its own affairs and does not comment on laws, policies or injustices in public”.
In a statement made on Facebook on Mon (22 Apr), Teo highlighted that under s.38(c) LPA, the Law Society aims “to assist the Government and the courts in all matters affecting legislation submitted to it and the administration and practice of the law in Singapore”.
Thus, “it is just a preference of the society to be engaged in confidential consultation with the government because it believes that by doing so, it will be more constructive”.
Law Society President Gregory Vijayendran, in a recent statement, said that the Society does not, “as a matter of practice, publicize the details of such discussions due to the confidentiality of the process”, and that it will relay its views on the new legislation “to the policy makers”.
“Through such constructive consultations for the benefit of Singapore society as a whole, we play our part to meaningfully speak to the issues involved in draft legislation rather than engaging in polemics,” he stressed.
Such confidential consultations, however, have not always panned out without opposition from members of the Law Society.
“The practice of confidential consultation did disturb some young members of the Law Society in the 1980s as more and more laws were introduced and passed without any comments from the society.
“Some of those laws were extremely detrimental to the public. It led a group of young lawyers to conclude that confidentiality of discussions with the government did not do any good to the public,” noted Teo.
Citing the case of the late lawyer, writer and political dissident Francis Seow’s public statement in 1986 regarding the amendment to the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act which, according to Teo, “sought to muzzle the foreign press”, it is understandable that the Law Society “retreated” to ‘constructive consultations'”.
Mr Seow, who served as the President of the Law Society at the time, was made a political exile alongside lawyer Tang Fong Har as a result of the public statement.
Six other lawyers and members of the Law Society were imprisoned without trial under the Internal Security Act.
Nonetheless, she noted, “under section 38(f) of the Legal Profession Act, it is the duty of the Law Society to “protect and assist the public in Singapore in all matters touching or ancillary or incidental to the law”.
Consequently, Teo questions the Law Society as to “whether confidential consultation with the government is constructive and effective, and whether it assists the public in any way, particularly with regard to the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, which gives our ministers judicial power to decide what is falsehood and what severe punishments should be imposed”.
“Such power undermines our Constitution which guarantees the separation of powers between the Executive and the Judiciary,” she concluded.
Teo herself was an active member of the Law Society in the 1980s and had established the Law Society Criminal Legal Aid Scheme with a number of other lawyers in 1985
‘We thought, as lawyers we should assist the Government by commenting on bills. Singapore was a one-party State at this time.
“However, the Government did not want to hear our opinions and soon afterwards a law was passed which restricted our right to comment on bills,” she told the International Service for Human Rights.